Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juni 2006

7.1. Media systems: their evolution and innovation
Herausgeber | Editors | Éditeur: Ernest W. B. Hess-Lüttich (Bern)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

The language of music, gaze, and dance.
Benjamin Britten's opera Death in Venice

Ernest W. B. Hess-Lüttich (Bern)


1. The language of music: syntactical meaning
2. The language of gaze: Aschenbach and Tadzio
3. The language of dance: Apollo and Dionysos
4. The language of transition: novella, film, and opera
5. References


1. The language of music: syntactical meaning

The relationship between language and music is, in music theory, not a particularly popular subject, which, in any case, all too easily evades exact analysis. Or do we know precisely what is described when we read the following, for example: "Through the melody the composer [...] speaks directly to the feeling, the still unreal, pre-conscious, the premonition [Der Komponist <...> spricht durch die Melodie das Gefühl, das noch Unwirkliche, Vorgewußte, Erahnte unmittelbar an]" Behr (1983: 34)? In his "Fragment über die Sprache" (in Quasi una Fantasia) Theodor W. Adorno wrote as early as 1963: "Music is like language [...] But music is not language. Its similarity to language leads the way into the interior, but also into the vague [Musik ist sprachähnlich <...> Aber Musik ist nicht Sprache. Ihre Sprachähnlichkeit weist den Weg ins Innere, doch auch ins Vage.]" (Adorno 1997: 251).

Why is this so? Is it because music lacks a strictly denotative stratum of meaning (Gruhn 1979: 265)? Or is it the other way around: what do music and language have in common? In search of an answer in terms of the semiotics of music, Peter Faltin suggests that "the similarity of music and language does not rest on the real function of language - to enable communication - but rather on one aspect of language, its ability to articulate and share thoughts [Die 'Sprachähn­lichkeit' von Musik beruht nicht auf der eigentlichen Funktion der Sprache, Verständigung herbeizuführen, sondern nur auf einem Aspekt der Sprache, auf ihrer Fähigkeit, Gedanken zu artikulieren und zu vermitteln]" (Faltin 1985: 178). It is obviously not easy to grasp the relationship between language and music precisely; and even more difficult to speak concretely, not vaguely, about music; and hardest of all to speak about opera, about the union of codes of music, language, and theatre into an aesthetic whole, a union of "text and music [...] two sign strata that refer to each other but remain separate [Text und Musik <...> zwei aufeinander bezogene, aber dennoch getrennte und von einander abhebbare Zeichenschichten]" (Gruhn 1979: 265). As it seems so difficult to speak about music in a non-metaphorical manner, which is the well-established language of musical critics, semiotics may provide the analytical instruments for describing opera as a "poly-coded text" (cf. Hess-Lüttich ed. 1982; id. 1994).

This is the starting point of an excellent study on opera as textual Gestalt: Klaus Kaindl (1995: 41) suggests an integrated approach to analyse the various media of the performance as a holistic complex of signs. This means looking at the functional relations of the verbal and non-verbal subtexts ["Oper als gestalthaft-semiotisches Relationsgefüge verbaler und non-verbaler Subtexte in ihren funktionalen Zusammenhängen"]. The interdisciplinary approach profits from models developed in literary theory, linguistics, theatre studies, musicology, psychology, and translation theory. It allows to understand the complexity of the textual structure of a message composed of language, music, stage, voice, and sound the Gestalt of which is determined by certain theatrical conventions not only of the libretto, with its linguistic condensation according to modes of articulation, pitch, and interval, but also of all the other simultaneous channels of signifying, of visual scene, of body language, and their combination with musical components of tones, voice qualities, rhythm, tempo, harmony, melody, sound, etc. (Kaindl 1995: 257 ff.). It is the specific interrelation of all these aspects which constitutes the enchantment of opera up to the present day, the powerful effect of what Thomas Mann referred to as "Beziehungszauber" of a "Gesamt­kunstwerk" (Richard Wagner).

The process of semiotic transformation from the score to the stage is even more complex in the case of operas made from literary texts. What sort of influence does a literary original have upon an opera? On the one hand it has been maintained that a literary text, especially a dramatic one, adds "homogeneity, drama and harmony to the prevalent theatrical situation, which music alone is no longer able to provide [eine Einheitlichkeit, Dramatik und Harmonie zu den herrschenden Theaterverhältnissen, die die Musik für sich allein nicht mehr zu leisten imstande ist]" (Gerhartz 1982: 54). The extra-musical original is a means "through which musical ideas may attain a greater transparency [durch das musikalische Ideen eine größere Transparenz erreichen]" (Faltin 1985: 77). The primacy here lies with music.

The aesthetic meaning of music is primarily syntactic. The notion that meaning is a matter of semantics alone, and that signs without a denotatum lack meaning fails to take into account the fact that, according to Charles W. Morris (1975: 283 ff.), each one of the three dimensions of a sign conveys meaning in its own specific way. He discusses the question of how signs can be meaningful if they seem to lack precisely the semantic dimension with reference to aesthetic signs. The syntactic categories giving meaning to musical signs are repetition, sequence, continuation, transition, contrast, similarity, difference, etc. (cf. Faltin 1985: 129; cf. Linder 1998: 89). These categories have in common that they refer to relationships between elements rather than to anthropomophisms. Music is not based on tones but on relationships (cf. Grossmann 1991).

The opposing opinion presents the theory that the primacy lies with language, if we correctly understand Wolfgang Rihm's somewhat opaque formulation (1959: 30): "Like a chemical solution, which makes invisible elements visible through colouring, music can make the textual aura visible, that is, audible [Wie eine chemische Lösung, die zunächst unsichtbare Elemente durch Färbung sichtbar macht, kann Musik die textspezifische Aura sichtbar bzw. hörbar machen]". Michael Behr (1983: 51) proposes the theory that "the languages of music, word, and gesture become one language, wherein each explains the other [die Sprachen von Musik, Wort und Gebärde werden zu einer Sprache, in der sie sich gegenseitig erklären]."

Thus, if one refrains from analysing the individual codes involved in order to understand the "message as a whole", this may lead to a position in which one hopes to understand music as meaning 'something', say, the literary model of an opera. Yet the meaning of a literary text should not be confused with the meaning of the piece of music made from it. Each calls for a different analytical operation based on a common theory of semiosis rather than a theory of signs (cf. Tarasti ed. 1996).

Following Lucy Beckett (1994: 103), and leaving the meta-level for a moment, Ulrich Weisstein (1999: 160 ff.) takes a third position covering the middle ground in the area of musical and verbal form. Discussing the varieties of verbo-vocal utterance in opera, he suggests a catalogue raisonné with some four intermediate categories based on the relationship of language and music in opera: (i) mimetic speaking, as in spoken segments of the libretto, e.g., in the German Singspiel (Mozart's Die Zauberflöte being a case in point); (ii) conventional speaking, as in recitativo secco or recitativo accompagnato, which are meant to be perceived as spoken; (iii) mimetic singing, especially in monologues, introspective soliloquies and the like, and (iv) conventional singing, which, as a mode of expression, is as natural to the dramma per musica as speaking is to the legitimate theatre. Silence, therefore, can be justified and condoned if it serves a specific and manifest dramaturgical end, as in the concept of the silent role of Tadzio as a dancer in Benjamin Britten's opera Death in Venice, adapted from Thomas Mann's novella DerTod in Venedig (1912).

2. The language of gaze: Aschenbach and Tadzio

This applies directly to the relationship between music and words in Death in Venice, Britten's last opera (1973; libretto by Myfanwy Piper), with the last great part for his friend and life-long partner, Peter Pears (cf. Britten 2004). It is another variation of Britten's life theme of threatened adolescent innocence, a theme, as Jürgen Kühnel (1985: 249) notes diplomatically, "which is probably rooted in the disposition of his personality [ein Thema, das wohl letztlich in der Disposition der Persönlichkeit Brittens wurzelt]". In his essay on Britten's homosexuality and his long relationship with Peter Pears, Jan Schmitz (1999: 38-47) has found adequate words to describe the difficult situation of an artist who tries to find his place in society as an outsider and respected composer (cf. also Elias & Scotson 1993). However, nowhere in his works will one find openly gay figures; love relationships between men and women rarely occur either. But signs referring to a different world are numerous. They reach beyond the "official meaning" and can be read by those able and willing to understand them. In this respect - very much like the works of Thomas Mann - it is indeed "a form of camouflage that has appeared in homosexual literature since antiquity [Es ist eine Form der Camouflage, wie sie sich in der homosexuellen Literatur seit der Antike findet]" (Schmitz 1999: 41).

The overall structure of the opera is typical for Britten's work: two acts with seventeen scenes counted as I.i-vii and II.viii-xvii, each with titles such as "Munich", "On the boat to Venice", "The journey to the Lido", "The first evening at the hotel", etc. Interestingly, the "Ouverture" entitled "Venice" (the only orchestral interlude in the whole work) follows after the first two scenes. The first act ends with Aschenbach watching nearly naked boys playing on the beach. The title of the scene is "The Games of Apollo". During the heavenly, supernatural sound of his song (the role of Apollo is written for a counter tenor), Aschenbach becomes aware of his feelings for Tadzio, the most beautiful of the boys: "then realising the truth at last": "I - love you". The second act begins with an Aschenbach soliloquy. But then, in the second scene at the barber's, the word "sickness" is mentioned for the first time. The scene entitled "The dream" (II.xiii) is again mythological and refers to "The games of Apollo" (I.vii). The act ends with Aschenbach's death.

Words and their ability to express thoughts are indeed one important theme of this opera. The combination of the musical motif and Piper's libretto produces a complex and intricate relationship of codes that is not easy to analyse. Britten has chosen precisely those texts as source material where language plays a 'problematic' role, i.e., where forms and requirements for communication are themselves aesthetically 'problematized' (cf. Hess-Lüttich 1984, id. 1985). One thinks of Britten's work on Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, or Herman Melville's Billy Budd, George Crabbe's Peter Grimes, and Henry James's Turn of the Screw among others. In these texts, each in its own way, the relationship between language and reality, truth and illusion, is the central theme (Corse 1987: 111).

What is not said, or what cannot be said, with language, Britten 'says' with music. Aschenbach's inability to speak with Tadzio takes on a more central thematic weight in the opera than in the novella: it is staged as a choreography of cruising, of eye-contact, of staring at each other, of secret observation, of hidden erotic messages, of gazing. An analysis of the different medial versions of Aschenbach's and Tadzio's relationship (perhaps even more so in Luchino Visconti's film Morte a Venezia: cf. Hess-Lüttich 2000) produces immediate information not only about the theme of language, but also about the language of gaze.

When one looks at the libretto, it becomes obvious that Aschenbach says hardly anything that is not exactly the same in the novella. Therefore, if Aschenbach's role is understood in a completely different way by the opera audience than by the novella reader, it is due less to the words of the text than to their translation into body language and its 'commentary' provided by the music. Everything described in the third person in the novella is reformulated into direct speech in the opera. Aschenbach's thoughts and encounters with others are "reformulated into free recitations, arias, ensembles and short duets" (Sutcliffe 1979: 103). The result has a radically different effect on the way we perceive the work. The ironic distance between narrator and protagonist is absent. Aschenbach's thoughts cannot be commented upon verbally. This minimizes the distance for the recipient as well.

This is not a "blemish [Schönheitsfehler]", as Terence Reed (1984: 174) complains, but a requirement of the medium. The function of the commentator is taken up by the music. Similarities in the form of motifs constitute their own web of references. Right at the beginning we hear motifs in the music which correspond to the written words in the novella: the quickly repeated ostinato tones which introduce the opera stand, according to James Sutcliffe (1979: 102), for "Aschenbach's pounding temples", for the nervous restlessness of his feelings. Peter Evans (1979: 528) maintains that the melodic motifs in the recitations, the chromatic passages which reach over an octave, symbolize the sand which flows through the hour glass.

There are ten passages in the opera where Aschenbach is accompanied by piano, a technique reminiscent of early Italian opera, above all in seventeenth-century Venice (cf. White 1983: 269). The piano accompaniment emphasizes Britten's notion of the spiritual alienation envisioned by Thomas Mann, the distance with which Aschenbach creates the image of himself. His mannerisms illustrate the impression: with every recitation he takes his notebook and pencil out of his pocket and begins to write. Peter Evans remarks in The Music ofBenjamin Britten (1979: 526): "Outside his writings [Aschenbach] can communicate only with himself, and from the start we see him isolated from - even while at the mercy of - events around him."

Aschenbach's habit of writing down all of his reflections literally becomes even clearer than in Thomas Mann's depiction. Because he is always analysing himself, his personal role gains more weight than the depiction of his thoughts in the novella. Reed (1984: 174) sees this facet as the inadequacy of the opera version: "Aschenbach often has to say more about himself than he is actually supposed to know [Aschenbach muß oft mehr über sich aussagen, als er eigentlich wissen sollte]." The disadvantage is, of course, "made up for by the motif work of the composer, who with great ingenuity has created equivalents for Thomas Mann's narrative and mythic relationships [wettgemacht durch die motivische Arbeit des Komponisten, der mit großer Findigkeit <...> Äquivalente für die erzählerischen und mythischen Beziehungen Thomas Manns geschaffen hat]" (ibid.). The notebook is Britten's invention, a means to make Aschenbach's distance from the 'world' visible in image and leitmotif. It suggests that we, too, see through Aschenbach's eyes whatever occurs on the stage. In strong contrast to the effect of the film, the distance and difference between what we see and hear and Aschenbach's imagined realm of perception are greatly diminished.

A more exact analysis of the musical motifs throws an even sharper light on the relationship between Aschenbach and Tadzio. Generally considered a characteristic feature of Britten's late style, the tritone (an augmented fourth, which is an interval of three whole tones) is introduced as a symbol of irresolvable conflict, of the "diabolus in musica", and as a musical metaphor for "death and the devil" [Tod und Teufel] (Karbusicky 1990: 151-178). In Death in Venice, according to Sutcliffe (1978: 97), it determines even "the entirety of motifs with which the opera begins - in Aschenbach's voice as well as in the orchestra accompaniment - and the spiritually uncertain condition besetting an increasingly unproductive poet is rendered in the music's unstable, hardly determinable tonality [den intervallischen Gesamtumfang der Motive, mit denen die Oper - in der Stimme Aschenbachs ebenso wie in der Orchesterbegleitung - beginnt und in deren labiler, kaum festlegbarer Tonalität der geistig unsichere Zustand des unfruchtbar gewordenen Dichters deutlich wird]." The close chromatic motifs are musical proof of the negative influences that bring on Aschenbach's end. They create a spirit of anxiety, which mirrors and expresses Aschenbach's inner tension, without the use of words.

How is the depiction of Aschenbach to be compared to that of Tadzio? In music, we recall, it is not the tones or single notes, but rather their relation to each other that creates something like "meaning" (Faltin 1985: 128). This applies to the depiction of the two protagonists as well. Britten's semiotic techniques in depicting Aschenbach gain their significance precisely when seen in contrast to those used to characterize Tadzio. This is also true of the composition of motifs. Aschenbach's motifs consist largely of brief chromatic intervals, whereas Tadzio's motifs are composed in larger ones. They appear more open to us, 'happier,' more relaxed. Moreover, the Tadzio motif is musically associated with the "panorama-landscape motif" (Corse 1987: 143), which tells the audience that Aschenbach relates Tadzio to nature, especially to the ocean.

The unbridgeable distance between Aschenbach and Tadzio - bridged only by long looks, furtive glances, signifying gazes - is also emphasized by a broader musical boundary, which Aschenbach cannot overcome. Both figures are associated with separate and different groupings of accompanying instruments. Whenever Tadzio appears the vibraphone rings, in sharp contrast to the piano accompanying Aschenbach's recitation. While Aschenbach's appearances are sometimes accompanied by the whole orchestra, Tadzio is constantly backed up by percussion instruments. In the judgement of the critics, this technique lends Tadzio an almost 'other-worldly' coloration.

Each role has its own tonality. With Aschenbach, it revolves around E, with Tadzio around A. The roles use tonalities to reflect their respective relationships to the figure of Apollo on the one hand (with E as the central tone), and of Dionysos on the other (with A as the central tone). Incidentally, the fifth [quinte] A-E is also the distance between the most closely related traditional types of tones as well. It was called a 'perfect fifth' as far back as the Middle Ages and - beside the fourth [quarte] and the octave - it was one of the three intervals upon which a musical phrase could end. Therefore, it is both an interval of a close relation and an approaching end. Thus even the interval between Aschenbach's and Tadzio's central tones becomes a musical sign for their relationship to each other: their silent communication through eye-contact only, their 'language of gaze'.

3. The language of dance: Apollo and Dionysos

Britten thought it important to transpose musically the complete inaccessibility of a 'real' relationship between Aschenbach and Tadzio, the impossibility of their spiritual and physical union, of even their nearness to each other. The contrast between the roles of Aschenbach and Tadzio as a silent dancer is certainly a means thereto. Terence Reed, still tied to his idea of a "version true to the poet", strongly criticized this transformation, because in its "exaltation of a healthy athletic Tadzio, who is victor in the 'sun festival' games of the inserted ballet sequences [...] the opera seriously tends away from the meaning and interpretation of the novella [Verherrlichung eines gesund-athletischen Tadzio, der bei den als Ballettsequenzen eingefügten 'Sonnenfest'-Spielen den Sieg davonträgt, <...> die Oper gravierend von Sinn und Interpretationen der Novelle abweicht]" (Reed 1984: 174). In contrast, as Eric Walter White claims (1983: 270), Myfanwy Piper defends these differences in direction precisely by a conscious emphasis on the distance between Aschenbach and the beloved boy: "In the book he has no contact with Tadzio [...] nor does he in the opera, and we have emphasised this separateness by formalising [his] movements into dance".

The formal structure of the dance enables us to see Tadzio, also through the eyes of Aschenbach, on a symbolic level (cf. Corse 1987: 135). Neither of them ever speaks to the other, let alone touches him. But the dance, full of sexual intensity, is the sign of the boy's physical attractiveness and of his untouchability, of the tension and distance between Aschenbach and Tadzio. The 'language of dance' corresponds to the 'language of gaze'. In comparison to the novella and especially to the film, the opera version, with its specific combination of codes, expresses this distance more strongly - notwithstanding the subtle suggestion of their relationship through musical signs and eyes watching: the A-E central tones and the choreography of cruising.

The associations with classical myth are also incomparably stronger in the opera than in the film, and thus closer to the novella (on the multiple mythological references in the novella see Mauthner 1952, as well as Wysling 1969, Dierks 1972, Reed 1984, Renner 1985). There are, for example, the simple but noticeable vocal assonances ("Aou'!") which run through the whole opera. We first hear them from the gondolier, who can be identified here as the 'Charon' figure whose 'aaoo' tones can thus be identified with death. Then we hear them again in the calls of Tadzio's friends, when they utter his name. And again in the Dionysos choir, which puts the Ephebe in musical relation to the god.

Tadzio is connected with Death and Dionysos, with Hermes as "psychopompos"; his elevation to the status of a mythical figure is not only tonally affected but is also strengthened through the choice of accompanying instrumentation. The percussive instruments, many of Asian origin, create their own 'chamber orchestra' with a remarkably exotic sound, as if from far-off eastern lands. It can be deduced from Thomas Mann's working papers that he was well aware of these Asian allusions: he refers to the cholera stemming from the delta of the Indian river Ganges and to Friedrich Nietzsche's Die Geburt der Tragödie (cf. § 20, Werke, vol. I: 113), where Dionysos starts his "Festzug von Indien nach Griechenland" (cf. Reed 1984: 154, 177).

In addition, Britten inserted two dance scenes depicting Aschenbach's dreams of fear and desire. Apollonian games are played in the first dance (scene I.vii). Tadzio is associated with mythological figures much more clearly here than in the film: he takes part in these games and wins. Despite all the sensuality of the game and erotic power of the dance, the impression of Tadzio's inaccessibility remains. Even while dreaming, Aschenbach cannot speak with Tadzio. James Sutcliffe (1979: 61) writes of Britten's intention "to create a (dance-)world, with which Aschenbach can never find contact but which recalls to his memory the dreamed-of ideal images of the ancient Greek world [eine (Tanz-)Welt zu schaffen, zu der Aschenbach niemals Kontakt finden kann, die aber doch seine erträumten Idealbilder der griechischen Antike in Erinnerung rufen]".

The second dance (scene II.xiii) presents the Dionysian dream. Britten roughly follows the book, however introducing dance as representing dream and accentuating the novella's mythic allusions even more intensely. The leitmotif of numerous allusions to Hermes in the novella is taken up in the opera: a mythical psychopompos, who guides Aschenbach to Venice and to death, takes some seven roles in the opera (Kühnel 1985: 253 f.): the mysterious traveller at the cemetery entrance in Munich (I.i); the "elderly fop" on the boat during the passage to Venice who anticipates Aschenbach's appearance at the end; the old gondolier as a true Charon figure who takes him, against his will, to the Lido in his black coffin-like gondola ("Passengers must follow / Follow where I lead / No choice for the living / No choice for the dead"); the fawning manager at the hotel; the barber who will later make him up as the "elderly fop" like the one on the boat (I.ii); the Neapolitan strolling musician mocking his audience; and, of course, Dionysos, the counterpart of Apollo, in his dreams.

The configuration of Apollo and Dionysos stands for the whole complex of Nietzschean tensions between principles which form a central and well described theme of Thomas Mann's works (cf. Pütz 1971: 225-249; Koopmann 1975; Härle 1988; Böhm 1989: 321 ff.; Deuse 1992). They not only symbolize the situation of the artist reflecting his work (represented by the famous yet controversial scenes with discussions on art and - deadly - inspiration in Visconti's film); but also represent the protagonist's situation after he has met a boy of unearthly beauty, unreachable, only to be gazed at, but also to be followed when he, as thanatos eros, he leads the way to death: "Ihm aber war, als ob der bleiche und liebliche Psychagog dort draußen ihm lächle, ihm winke; als ob er, die Hand aus der Hüfte lösend, hinausdeute, voranschwebe ins Verheißungsvoll-Ungeheure. Und, wie so oft, machte er sich auf, ihm zu folgen" (Mann 1967: 399).

4. The language of transition: novella, film, and opera

As is well known, this emphasis on myth is not rare in musical theatre, a circumstance which some critics, for example Michael Behr (1983: 18), trace back to the fact that "the drama of the unconscious soul is presented through myth [das Drama der unbewußten Seele <...> symbolisch durch den Mythos dargestellt wird]". Whatever that may mean precisely, it is certain that the medium of opera, with its complicated complementarity of codes, lends itself to a more abstract level of interpretation than the narrative text does. In other words: the rules of narrative and the novelist's points of view demand a different mode of perception in response to that which is represented, just as the sequentiality of film does.

While the objectifying presentation of action on stage prevents too direct an association with 'the story', reading stimulates the imagination to limitless individual fantasies, and montage and editing techniques of cinematic language encourage observers to identify with what they see. The protagonists' eye contact, their 'language of gaze' becomes 'true' in the film, and graphic. In the opera, we 'read' Aschenbach's thoughts and feelings, interpreting, 'adapting', giving meaning through Britten's signs of music, never aware of mere 'facts'. We follow the subtle dramaturgy of the work's overall structure and take Aschenbach's perspective, as the whole plot is focused on this figure. He is the only one present on stage from beginning to end, while the scenes constantly change. As Jürgen Kühnel (1985: 250 ff.) has pointed out, this is a radical break with traditional structures of opera, theatre, and drama with respect to scenic space and time. With changes of scenes, time may be accelerated by dramaturgical means which Britten and his librettist had learned from their TV production of the earlier opera OwenWingrave. There they had already experimented with the possibilities of simultaneous scenes, with successive movements of figures through connected spaces, and with the technique of time acceleration within certain scenes.

As one example of this technique, Kühnel (1985: 251 f.) mentions scene "The foiled departure". Aschenbach approaches Venice by gondola, the gondolier singing his "Aou'! Stagando, aou'! Aou'!" Aschenbach leaves the gondola "at the landing place" and "starts walking through the streets". Constantly being addressed by beggars, dealers, and tourist guides, he feels increasingly "unhappy and uncomfortable" (arioso: "While the scirocco blows / Nothing delights me"); so he decides to leave Venice: "Enough, I must leave". Returning to the "landing stage", he enters another gondola heading back to the Lido, while the gondoliers sing their typical song. When Aschenbach reaches the Lido and leaves the gondola, the scene is suddenly interrupted: after a "passage of time", Aschenbach appears in the lobby of the hotel, together with the manager, who fawns and wheedles around him. Once again Aschenbach's eye lights upon Tadzio - for the last time, he thinks: "For the last time, Tadziù, / it was too brief, all too brief - / may God bless you". Here again comes a "passage of time", and we see Aschenbach back in the gondola and hear the gondoliers singing their song.

In a short conversation with the porter at the station, Aschenbach learns that his luggage has been misrouted. He decides to stay in Venice. The gondola returns to the Lido, the gondolier singing his "Aou'!" in the background of one of Aschenbach's soliloquies. The manager awaits him in the hotel lobby and takes him "to his room and opens the window on the beach". After the manager has left the room, Aschenbach looks out of the window: "Tadzio, Jaschu, and a few other boys are seen playing in the distance". The scene is closed by an Aschenbach arioso "Ah, Tadzio, the charming Tadzio, / that's what it was". Despite the changing settings and the two time passages, the scene has a clear structure of a double cursus (Kühnel 1985: 252):

The dramaturgical constellation of the dramatis personae has a clear structure too. There are three groups of figures who stand for different but interwoven levels of dramatic action: (i) the 'real' figures of the gondoliers, the hotel staff, travellers, dealers, beggars, etc.; (ii) the mythological figures (see section 3, above); (iii) the boys on the beach. Kühnel includes Tadzio in this third group, but in a way the boy stands alone, as Aschenbach does, both forming a dyad of intense communication through their gazes, but gazes alone. This is what Visconti had visualized so adequately by means of film, by close-ups, cuts, etc. (cf. Hess-Lüttich 2000).

According to Kühnel, the three groups of figures correspond with three levels of action: the level of reality, the level of mythology, and the level of reflection. This triadic structure is reflected in the sign structure of the work: (i) scenes with figures of the dramatis personae come with orchestra and recitals, so do (ii) those with mythological figures (but arioso in character, plus chorus); (iii) the level of reflection is represented by Aschenbach's soliloquies (with Thomas Mann's prose), accompanied by piano; the dance scenes with Tadzio are structured by percussion - another indication that they stand on their own and should not be subsumed under the scenes with the boys on the beach.

Mann's novella, and Visconti's film in its own way, live by the tension between outer appearance and inner action, between vanity and passion, degeneration and eternity. This tension is completely different in Britten's opera. As well befits the musical medium, the sensual and spiritual, erotic and aesthetic relationship between Aschenbach and Tadzio is transformed to a symbolic relationship. More precisely, it is condensed to a symbolic constellation, transfigured into an abstract thought process. Yet structurally, the two congenial works are comparable, because they both make specific use of film sign systems, which allow for optimal transformation of narrative, especially of prose in the semi-dramatic genre of a novella.

Despite their shared subject matter, novella, film, and opera each tell their own story. Comparing them helps to show how each is to be separately interpreted. Therefore, the idea of a faithful rendition of the novella cannot be a criterion to judge whether the film or the opera is 'successful' or 'unsuccessful'. Both artists, Visconti and Britten, have added something of their own, each in his own medium. To reduce their works to mere copies, re-workings or adaptations of an original, would be doing them an injustice. They are congenial references, textually interwoven obeisances to Thomas Mann as the citizen-artist and to his lifelong theme, to Bajazzo and poeta doctus, the "Magician" and artist of ambivalence, to Tonio's longing for the "bliss of the commonplace [Wonnen der Gewöhnlichkeit]" (Tonio Kröger) and Leverkühn's "ambiguity as system [Zweideutigkeit als System]" (Doktor Faustus). And, of course, they honour the only possible suitable stage, Venice, that "ambiguous city" (Simmel 1922: 72). Its "ruin and radiance, sensuousness and fate [...], implausible beauty and irreversible foundering [Unheil und Glanz, Wollust und Schicksal <...>, unglaubwürdige Schönheit und unrettbares Versinken]" (Papst 1955: 341) have inspired poets to song from time immemorial up to the present (Byron, Ode on Venice [1918]; see Dieterle 1995 on Venice as a literary motive through the centuries).

O Venice! Venice! when thy marble walls
Are level with thy waters, there shall be
A cry of nations o'er thy sunken halls,
A loud lament along the sweeping sea!

© Ernest W. B. Hess-Lüttich (Bern)


Adorno, Theodor W. 1997: "Fragment über Musik und Sprache", in: Adorno, Theodor W. 1997: Gesammelte Schriften vol. 16 (Musikalische Schriften I-III), Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 251-256

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Hess-Lüttich, Ernest W.B. 1994: "Codes, Kodes, Poly-Codes", in: id. & Müller, Jürgen E. (eds.) 1994: Semiohistory and the Media. Linear and Holistic Structures in Various Sign Systems, Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 111-122

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7.1. Media systems: their evolution and innovation

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  16 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Ernest W.B. Hess-Lüttich (Bern, Switzerland): The language of music, gaze, and dance. Benjamin Britten's opera Death in Venice. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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